Today I visited Pripyat, Ukraine, also known as one of the most interesting places on the planet – simply because it is largely off-limits to unrestricted exploration. The reason for taboo travel in and around Pripyat is, of course, because it was located in the fallout zone near Chernobyl, the Ukranian nuclear power plant that experienced a meltdown (allegedly due to flawed reactor design and poorly trained staff) in 1986.
When I say I ‘visited’ Pripyat, I actually mean that I played the role of Armchair Explorer and traveled the streets and examined the sights courtesy of Google Street View. I love abandoned places populated by the shells of society and devoid of humanity. There is something both eerie and peaceful about being in a place once well-populated and now totally deserted.
While I was meandering through the streets of Pripyat, I noticed something unusual. At latitude/longitude 51.4004125,30.0526197, there are some structures that are intentionally blacked out at street level. See the image below:
If you move slightly to the right (when facing this blacked-out structure), the image comes back into view unobstructed and looks like this:
An aerial satellite image of the area reveal nothing unusual or seemingly secretive – just more abandoned buildings that look like every other abandoned building in the area. What is covered by the black box and why?
There are several large apartment buildings in Pripyat, and most of the windows are either wide open or have been broken out. Since the town was evacuated right after the Chernobyl accident and was not fully secured for some time afterward, it may be likely that vandals and looters opened or broke the windows while scavenging around the modern ruins.
Most people who explore Pripyat want to go straight to the amusement park and the Ferris wheel. It has become the most photographed object within the city limits of Pripyat, leaving a large part of the city and surrounding area neglected and ignored in favor of popular media.
Along the outskirts of town, the rusted hulks of power line support structures jut up above the overgrown trees, grass, and other plant life. With no human presence in the area for 30 years, the landscape is slowly taking over once more and creeping onto and over the concrete and metal buildings scattered here and there. Time will continue its slow march onward and eventually these structures, no matter how sturdy, will succumb to decay unless they are manually demolished before being reclaimed by the land.
Pripyat has become a tourist attraction over the past several years, with visitors being allowed to explore with a guide. Visits to the area are time-restricted due to the possibility of contamination from the radiation fallout of Chernobyl. While the risk is minimal, government officials and designated tour guides elect not to take risks with the health and safety of visitors and tourists.
Studies of the area have shown that proximity to the fallout has had little long-term impact on the flora and fauna in the area; plant life is obviously abundant, and the wild and feral animals observed and studied have shown little to no signs of permanent damage from exposure to radiation. Long-term effects on humans is another matter entirely, however.
Despite guards around the area and the fact that Pripyat is a forbidden zone, urban explorers still find their way – unescorted – to the city to wander through the silent ghost town. The advantage they have over an Armchair Explorer using Google Street View is that urban explorers can wander in and out of the buildings and through areas that are not accessible to vehicles.
Google is, unfortunately, restricted to streets, trails, paths, and other vehicle tracks – at least until such time that they manage to install Google mapping cameras on wildlife or miniature, self-guided exploratory drones. You can go where guides don’t usually take you, however, when you explore with Street View. The Pripyat guided tours often visit the most popular destinations – Ferris wheel, amusement park, shopping mall, school, etc.
Even though I am unable to explore inside the buildings to see how life essentially stood still (at least what remains now after scavengers and looters have laid claim to quite a bit of it) when the people of Pripyat were told to drop what they were doing and leave – basically with little more than the clothes on their backs – it is still enjoyable to explore the streets via Street View. It’s a place I may never get to explore in person, so Google Street View is certainly the next best thing (until they create a virtual reality street simulator!).
The image above is a roof-top view of the city of Pripyat. The silver dome-shaped object on the horizon just to the left of center is the containment dome for the #4 reactor at Chernobyl, which is the reactor that experienced a malfunction. While this image captures just one direction of view from a roof in Pripyat, it gives you a sense of just how big the city itself was. Thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods when the Chernobyl accident occurred.
There is so much more to see at Pripyat than the Ferris wheel and bumper cars….
…places you simply don’t get to see on a guided tour, not even from a distance.
And if you aren’t able to make the trip yourself, whether you plan on having a guide or guiding yourself, you can always explore via Google Street View. It might not be the same as being there, but it’s better than never getting to ‘see’ it at all (or trying to see it by looking at someone else’s photographs while blocking out their ‘fascinating’ commentary for every picture).
If you visit Pripyat in person, you can also visit Chernobyl itself and view the power plant, reactors, and containment dome used to cover the failed reactor until the irradiated contaminants can be safely disposed of.
If you have an hour or two to kill and you’d like to see more of the world without spending a dime, check out Google Street View and visit those far-away destinations you have always wanted to go to. You can also add your own photos to Google’s Street View ‘library’ – just check out the application information and help file to find out how. That way, you can contribute to the experiences of other explorers and give them more than just a bird’s eye view of a destination they have only dreamed about!